Give writer-director Neil Marshall credit: When he dives into hardcore genre waters, which is basically every time he makes a movie, he does so with gusto. His Dog Soldiers bravely imagined a special ops squad ambushed by werewolves; The Descent gave us freakishly mutated bat-men; and Doomsday tried to simulcast every post-apocalyptic sci-fi action movie ever made at twice the volume. For Centurion, he turns his eyes on revisionist pulp-historical action movies like 300 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, aiming to Marshallize them, which is to add more screaming and gore.
To this aim, he succeeds: Centurion is quite gory and fairly loud, though not so much so as Doomsday. The newer film may follow early-AD Roman Quintus (Michael Fassbender) sneaking a small group of soldiers through the enemy territory of the fearsome Picts and back to safe, sweet mega-Rome, but all of this careful eluding doesn’t much limit the amount of violent confrontation and manly bellowing. This is essentially a long chase without the patience for chases; enemies more or less appear at the movie’s convenience, as do loyalty-reversing double-crosses, at least one of which occurs so early on that it undermines any functional twisting of the plot.
That first betrayer is Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a Pict working for the Romans who almost immediately returns to her roots as an avenging wolf-woman (her family was destroyed by Roman invaders). Etain is regarded with such fear, and regards her enemies with such menace, that her actual utilization in the field of ass-kickery is, uncharacteristic for Marshall, somewhat muted. Nonetheless, Kurylenko has found her niche as the poor man’s Milla Jovovich, which I guess makes Marshall the poor man’s Luc Besson, an impresario of European junk food.
This isn’t the worst filmmaking position to hold, but it’s not a necessary one, either, as Besson already serves the poor man quite well in his own films. Some of Centurion is fun in that recyclable, grab bag way; Marshall is committed to his viscera and amped-up intensity (though it’s disappointing to see him continue to spritz chintzy-looking CGI blood over his slurries of entrails), and the showmanship from his previous movies remains. But Centurion, like Doomsday before it, ultimately seems more concerned with its excesses than its characters.
The Picts are depicted as fearsome, ruthless warriors, but they are, in the end, defending their land; the Romans just want to scramble home, but they are, in doing so, attempting to weasel out of the consequences of marauding across the landscape. Once Quintus must lead them, he’s a hero by default more than direct characterization. Basically, we’re watching a bunch of disagreeable folks scrap and scramble with increasing desperation.
This murky lack of heroism could create a fascinating moral ambiguity if developed with any nuance, but Marshall uses it primarily to make just about everyone in the movie really angry with each other. Actors as good as Fassbender, Dominic West, and David Morrissey have to grapple with a bunch of dialogue about honor, duty, fathers, soldiers. It’s supposed to sound impassioned, but without his usual fantastical trappings and underneath the surface bluster, Marshall’s work feels strangely clinical. Watching an over-the-top genre pastiche, your dominant reaction shouldn’t be to ask what everyone is getting so worked up about.